Wednesday 3 December 2008

Capricious Gods

The ancients feared their Gods.
Their Gods did not love them, their Gods could be cruel.

It's often said that the Gods of the ancients were not really so very divine. They had very human sentiments. They were flawed, they had no concepts of Good and Evil as such, they could be benign, they could be malevolent.
They were just men and women with supernatural powers.

And yet- the truth is darker yet, if you look. The ancients seemed to have understood something else about their Gods.
If their Gods really DID have the same sentiments as human beings, then- that was indeed a terrible thought.
For having the powers they did from the moment of their birth, how could the Gods ever have needed to learn to adapt to those around them?
Having never had to suffer as humans had, never had to fear death, never had to fear poverty, starvation, never had to fear being rejected by any other than a fellow deity, or if they were rejected, able to visit terrible consequences on those that rejected, how could the Gods be anything other than fickle and capricious beings, spoilt brats, children who knew how everything in the entire universe worked, bar one thing.

How human beings felt.

The Gods might look down on humanity, might watch their lives and smile.
But they watched them as a child might watch a guinea pig in its hutch. What the Gods would never be able to do, would be watch the guinea pig as an adult would.

They were born with knowledge of everything, and that never changed. Gods could not learn, there was nothing for them to learn. And so experience changed nothing for them.

Whether the ancients had sat and contemplated this, I do not know. Maybe it was merely a piece of insight into what such beings must be. But the mythologies of the ancients make it clear, the Gods rule, but certainly not responsibly.

Take Jupiter. The highest power in the Universe. Yet has a habit of plucking human beings (of both sexes) up to Olympus to frolic with, then leave about the place as ornaments.
Human wars are not about right and wrong for the Gods either. Gods take sides depending on personal preference. Frigga once asked Odin whether the Vandals or the Lombards would win a certain battle, and his reply was 'Whoever I see first when I wake up'. This kind of lackadaisical frivolous approach to human affairs was expected by the ancients in the powers that ruled their universe.

The ancients didn't look up to their Gods for moral advice. How could they? The Gods knew very little about the daily grind of human existence. They really were driven entirely by their passions. And human beings really just had to make do. Pacify them, placate them.

They weren't even worthy of respect by the standards of the people who worshipped them. I'll be honest, I find the exploits of Freya and Aphrodite often quite refreshing tales to hear of Goddesses, but is curious to think of the Vikings, who undoubtedly punished adultery amongst their women in utterly barbarous ways, worshipping a goddess who sold her body to four dwarves in exchange for a necklace. Or the stolid Romans of the stoical Republic worshipping a goddess who frolicked with Ares and Adonis whilst her husband trawled away in his furnace.

Perhaps the beginning of the end for these sorts of religions really was when Rome reached its height. When men came along who made the whole world sing their praises. The Emperors, rising to giddy heights no human being had yet dreamed of. Because men like these didn't merely retire to the Elysian fields, surely?

No, like Hercules, they were so great that on their death, they joined the Gods. In life they were men, in death they were Gods...

Dangerous thoughts. For once you establish the principle that an Emperor is a God in death, does that not in life make him a God in the making?
And what if he starts to act like one?

When the whole point of being a God, is utter contempt for human beings...

The Romans shivered in horror at Caligula and Nero, but what could they expect?
These men were merely behaving exactly as the Gods did. Living Gods.
If Jupiter could get away with it, so could they. Because unlike other men, they'd dine with Jupiter one day.

It is easy to glorify these ancient religions and emphasise their apparent virtues. That they never burnt people at the stake, that they never forced people to convert, and they didn't.
But ultimately, they outlived their usefulness once human culture reached a certain point. They could only offer a series of tales, fireside stories to unite a people and create a common culture, they offered no moral compass to drive that people forward.

Perhaps the real selling point to the intelligentsia of the classical world that Christianity offered, that it alone could offer, was that it offered a grown up God.
A God who knew that the only way to understand humanity, to view them as a grown up adult views the guinea pig, was to live as one of them.

Maybe the early converts thought 'Yes, if there really is a God and he really does love us, he'd HAVE to do that. That is the mark of a loving God, that he'd be born among us, live among us, die for us, then return to Heaven knowing us. That God, we can believe in. That is a truly mighty God and he must be able to defeat these Gods of ours, who if they exist, lack the wisdom this new God surely possesses'.

That, I think, was always the true triumph of Christianity. That it had a God who had come to learn from humans how to be a better God.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting to read, Crushed.

I have read little bits about the ancient gods and beliefs and yes, their gods were mischievous and fickle and very human in their follies.
Interesting that our Christian God is very much unlike that.

Anonymous said...

I think this is basically quite an insightful post I lots of ways. You make some pretty good points, but I figure you gloss over stuff that does not quite fit your point. I think you do that sometimes.

Good point about Chronos. Not nice, with very bad paternal instincts (but he was learning from scratch). The next generation are not as bad, but pretty dysfunctional. Their kids though had to accommodate their parents and each other. They would have had some idea what it was like to be human because they had to fit in with each other and learn to get along, patience, etc.

Maybe the next generation…

As for grown up gods? You did you read the old testament? Is this really about the same sort of personality that would go all hippy with the JC option?

Think about it. Vicious, cruel, jealous, takes sides, easily manipulated by his opposite number…

Must have got himself a real good publicist before the second half of his autobiography went to press.

Anonymous said...

I never looked at it quite like that before - very well written and insightful.


Anonymous said...

There would be a time, in the not so distant future, when our present society would be referred to by the future societies as ancients. And they would see our beliefs just as we see the ancients' beliefs.

By persistently seeking the identity of the supreme being in the outside world, (just as we persistently seek our own identity through the outside world - whether it be our nationality, race, religion, beliefs, philosophies, thoughts, jobs, possessions, achievements or whatever) we humans very often end up making up Gods in our image and likeness, with some accentuated or disproportionately magnified properties.

And so for the ancients, their images of God were what they considered as somewhat ideal for their perceptions and imaginations. And when someone like Jesus comes along and does things that most humans cannot get themselves to do, we simply label it as impossible for us to do. We find it easier to simply worship the people who do things that we find it easier t do.

And around these people, the theorists and the schemers who are perennially trying to associate meaning with the physical world of external appearances, form scores of religions.

It is in the moment when we honestly go deep within ourselves to try and comprehend who we really are, who the "I" that we use so often really Is, that we find that pure divinity that all great men and women and masters from all traditions and religions have talked about, though with different words, different languages, and different phraseologies.

Different pointers pointing to the same direction.

I'm sorry if I deviated off-topic; or if I caused any reactivity or hurt to anyone; that was most definitely not my intention.


Anonymous said...

Kate- They behave like children. And they're pretty nasty to eachother.

Loki is a fascinating case in point. He probably made life in Asgard more interesting, but there seems to be a sense in which the Gods were just BORED most of the time. Sif wakes up one day and finds someone has cut all her hair off in her sleep.

Maybe Loki had a cameraphone...

Moggs- They still don't tend to be good losers.
Don't compete against a God and win.
And if two Gods have a debate on something, you don't want to be the adjudicator.
Athene- supposedly the Godess of Wisdom, decided she hated the Trojans because Paris thought Aphrodite was sexier.

Your point about the OT God is interesting. The idea, I suppose, is that God CHANGED by becoming human. He learned to be a better God, one less disposed to turning people into lumps of salt, etc.

Though the Gnostic heresy realised a problem. If God was all knowing, then surely he'd never have been that bad to begin with?
answer: The OT was based on a lie. The OT God, wasn't God. Jesus came to preach the TRUE God, the OT God being...the Devil.

As I think you may have noticed, I have a lot of sympathy for the Gnostic position.

Cat- It's just how I see it.

People often don't seem to grasp the place of Christian thought in the development of ideology. But that's of course what it is, the world's first ideology.
It's roots aren't in the OT, contrary to popular belief, but in Platonic and Aristotelian thought.

It's a set of intellectual propositions, as opposed to a set of myths.

Sumedh- I suspect they'll see a clear difference.
It's worth noting that the religions which survivd did so because they offered a moral system. Kind of Survival of the fittest, in religious terms.

Christianity, and the Catholic Church especially, have found their historial legacy being attacked, now we have eascaped their power.

I think that leads us to ignore quite the change in the human psyche brought about by it.

In a very real sense, 'We're all Christians now'.

The moral system proposed by Christianity, has essentially triumphed.

I think any faith today attempting to be even remotely plausible, cannot remain wedded to the idea of personal deities.